America’s 45th president generates vast tides of comparisons: Donald Trump is a toddler, a savior, a dictator. He’s a prophet, a psychopath, a plague. Though these divided visions threaten to rupture into constitutional crisis in the current impeachment proceedings, we share one belief: Trump, devil or hero, is always and emphatically himself.
Trump, in short, appears authentic. This source of appeal caused nearly 63 million Americans to overlook his personal failings and political inexperience in 2016. Despite unprecedented news coverage of the president’s professional failings, lies, and scandals, nearly half the country continues to support him. Why?
Trump’s enduring political appeal, like his success in Hollywood, is the product of his perceived authenticity. While the American ideal of authenticity now lives in our language, celebrities, and songs, its value was most powerfully articulated by the famous 19th-century preacher and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Strange as it may seem, understanding Emerson unlocks the deep and hidden cultural logic that led to the rise of Donald Trump. To see how authenticity became a core American virtue, it’s essential to understand the work of the philosopher Harold Bloom called “the dominant sage of the American imagination.”
At first glance, the two men seem to share nothing. Trump struggles to spell basic words, barely reads anything, and writes “sentences” like this: “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” Emerson, by contrast, read Latin fluently by his early teens, accumulated a deep knowledge of history and literature, scorned material wealth, and wrote sentences like this: “After every foolish day we sleep off the fumes and furies of its hours; and though we are always engaged with particulars, and often enslaved to them, we bring with us to every experiment the innate universal laws.”
What could these two men possibly have in common?
Trump and Emerson share a deep faith in authenticity as a private and political virtue. This faith comprises three basic elements: an indifference to facts and consistency, a hostility to history, and a belief in the authentic individual as the arbiter of truth.
“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do,” Emerson famously declared in his essay “Self-Reliance,” concluding that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Trump has precisely this Emersonian belief that his greatness exempts him from the claims of consistency. To reverse and contradict himself is not grounds for criticism, but simply a manifestation of his “great soul.” By some estimates, Trump has told more than 10,000 lies while in office. Even now, in the face of impeachment, Trump claims that incriminating documentary evidence exonerates him. That others fail to appreciate his heroic inconsistencies and indifference to facts is an expected consequence of greatness. “To be great,” Emerson teaches us in the essay “Self-Reliance,” “is to be misunderstood.”
Both men also have little use for history. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books,” Emerson said at Harvard in 1837, “...The books of an older period will not fit this.” One of his great themes is the necessity of freeing oneself from the shackles of history, which he calls “an impertinence and an injury,” its long centuries “conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.”
Donald Trump is similarly hostile to history. He barely reads anything because, as he once explained, “I don’t have the time.” The result is a president who says that there were airports during the Revolutionary War and that Frederick Douglass is still alive. Trump has indeed freed himself from the “conspirators against... the majesty of the soul.” Both men regard the truth not as a result of deliberate study of documents, books, and evidence, but as the upwelling genius of the inner authentic self.
In 2014, Trump tweeted one of Emerson's many famous aphorisms on being true to one’s own nature: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” For both men, authenticity means appealing to a truth higher than fact. A consistent motif across Emerson’s work is the supremacy of intuition and the idealization of authenticity. Only the subjective self is a reliable guide in life. The rational mind, with its emphasis on facts and its demand for consistency, is a prison from which he counsels escape. Rather than freezing a topic with the “wintry light of understanding,” Emerson urges his readers to consult their authentic selves and act accordingly. Trump, similarly, is guided by hunches, intuition, and instinct. He follows a truth that only he can see. This is perhaps why he is celebrated as both a visionary by his followers and a madman by his critics. Emerson now enjoys only the former designation, but a close reading of his work shows that in many ways Trump is merely following in his footsteps.
In an interview with The New Yorker, the Stanford historian and conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson conceded that while Trump may not be honest, he is something more important.
Hanson: ...every time Hillary Clinton went before a Southern audience, she started speaking in a Southern accent. And Barack Obama, I think you would agree, when he gets before an inner-city audience, he suddenly sounded as if he spoke in a black patois. When Trump went to any of these groups, he had the same tie, the same suit, the same accent. What people thought was that, whatever he is, he is authentic.
New Yorker: Honest, authentic.
Hanson: I don’t know about honest, but authentic and genuine. Honest in the sense that…
New Yorker: The larger sense.
However stark their political differences, Hanson and his interviewer both see the authentic as something that transcends honesty and fact. An authentic person is honest “in the larger sense.”
Something here is deeply wrong; a person can be entirely dishonest, and yet still claim honorific honesty. The key idea that bridges this contradiction is the appeal to authenticity.
The word “authentic,” once meant something quite different than it does today. The English “authentic” derives from the Greek words autos, “self,” and hentes, “doer or actor.” To be authentic is to be a “self-actor.” An αὐθέντης, a “self-doer” can even be a “murderer,” one who takes the law into his own hands and whose self-interest transgresses the law of the community. Doing the biddings of the private self can pose a public hazard.
In Latin authenticus is a rare word that describes a text that truly “comes from the author,” and is an original and genuine work. This is the sense the term carries in English before Emerson. It specifies factual accuracy. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an example from 1798, five years before Emerson was born. “An authentic book, is that which relates matters of fact, as they really happened.” Note the emphasis on accuracy, reliability, and fact.
In Emerson’s work, the word “authentic” connotes a higher spiritual truth marked by fidelity to one's own nature, rather than factual accuracy. When Emerson describes the “authentic,” he means that which is “indicative of no custom or authority.” As he writes in the 1837 address “The American Scholar,” “The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare… only the authentic utterances of the oracle; all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.” The authentic individual in Emerson rejects what is false to himself and keeps only what he intuits to be true. The self, in short, is the oracle.
Today, this metaphorical extension of the Latin adjective from text to self dominates our understanding of the authentic, but the Greek meaning reveals a danger inherent in the concept: one who acts on the urges of the self, regardless of factual and communal standards, can justify any number of misdeeds, including murder.
In his revolt against 18th-century European rationalism, Emerson sought to articulate and inspire a new ideal. “Ours is the revolutionary age, when man is coming back to consciousness,” he wrote in 1839. In this new consciousness, knowledge dwells not in the facts of the world but in the intuition and subjective experience of the individual. The world is simply “the shadow of the soul,” or in an even more narcissistic, Trumpian formulation, the “other me.”
Emerson made the appealing case that self-creation is America’s quintessential art, the only sure path to individual fulfillment and national progress. His rhetorical style relies heavily on seductive metaphors and oracular assertions. “I—this thought which is called I,—is the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax.”
His essays defy simplistic reductions in their attempt to elicit the voice of the authentic individual. Nonetheless, the great American literary critic F.O. Matthiessen sees one passage from an 1840 journal entry as the key to Emerson’s philosophy: “I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man.” Emerson, in his late essay, “Historic Notes on Life and Letters in Massachusetts,” clarifies this notion. “The individual is the world.”
Emerson’s central idea is present in one of his earliest works, the address “The American Scholar” (1837). He wrote, “If there be one lesson more than another, which should pierce [the] ear, it is, the world is nothing, the man is all.” Here, Emerson articulated a new vision of knowledge opposed to the Enlightenment rationalist philosophy which held that knowledge is an objective pursuit. Instead, Emerson relativizes all knowledge to the individual: “in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.”
Emerson reframed the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s well-known aphorism (taken from Horace): sapere aude, “dare to know.” Emerson’s message was different. “Dare to know” became the more problematic “Dare to be yourself.” One fundamental cultural shift that could inject sanity into our crazed politics is a reversal of Emerson's terms: less authenticity, more knowledge.
If we equate knowledge with self-knowledge, we are destined to privilege intuition over information. Emerson shows an open hostility to facts and consistency, which he understands as barriers to authenticity. In his 1841 essay “History,” he writes, “No anchor, no cable, no fences, avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon, Troy, Tyre, Palestine, and even early Rome, are passing already into fiction.” For Emerson, facts and consistency are directly opposed to authentic intuition. Those who finally dare “to be themselves” will “come to revere their intuitions and aspire to live holily” because “their own piety explains every fact, every word.”
What Emerson expresses philosophically, Trump lives every day. Trump fails to remember basic facts of American history, but Emerson asserts they do not matter in the first place: “I hold our actual knowledge very cheap,” he writes.
Since Emerson believes in individual intuition, he also feels that rational consistency limits authenticity. His essays are beautiful compounds of metaphor and insight, but his style itself discourages rational scrutiny of his claims. His ideas are usually no more separable from the tumult of his brilliant metaphors than the respiratory system is from an organism: seamless integration is a design feature. This is a major aspect of his style—the irreducibility of his language to propositional claims. If it were possible to translate his ideas without reduction, they would be subject to debate, evaluation, and relevant evidence. Instead, the power of Emerson’s language and ideas is driven by his own persona and voice. The proof of his ideas is in his work, not in debate, and not in information about the world. In Emerson’s understanding of the American imagination, the final proof of truth is the self.
Facts encumber. Rationality confuses. Debate dilutes authenticity. “Good and bad,” Emerson tells us, “are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Emerson, like Donald Trump, believes in “inspiration,” “miracle,” and “individual culture.” As Emerson writes in the “Transcendentalist,” individual culture is opposed to the culture of facts and consistency, which is founded “on history, on the force of circumstances, and the… wants of man.” By branding facts as encumbrances and rejecting the moral claims of others, Emerson believes he has freed individuals to create whatever selves they deem most true. Emerson’s cult of authenticity promises individual freedom, but it sacrifices the foundations of a shared political life.
There is a seductive beauty in the idea that the world is the image of the individual. But we rarely address the dark side of our belief in spiritual authenticity. Absent any objective moral standards, what if we discover an authentic self that delights in harming others? Emerson is unconcerned by this possibility; he explicitly asserts the supremacy of the self, regardless of its moral content. As he writes in “Self-Reliance,” “If I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” Add a few glaring typos, and it could almost be Trump.
Emerson’s claim that “The individual is the world” is not only the ideal of individual authenticity; it is also the aphorism of the dictator. When the media charges Trump with mendacity, he responds with the doctrine of the “devil’s child.” If your news is not mine, Trump says, your news is fake. Or, in Emerson’s words, “If you are… not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own.” This perfectly describes the tribal partisanism that shapes our contemporary politics.
Emerson preaches an ideal that has served Trump well, “the single man [must] plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” Ultimately, this philosophy ends in contradiction. The world cannot come round to everyone. All cannot yield to all. This is the consequence of Emersonian individualism: weak souls must inevitably bend to the will of the authentic. Emerson is explicit on this. Lesser souls, Emerson tells us, “are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person” because “they sun themselves in the great man's light.” Emerson, like Trump, has no empathy for those who lack the strength to self-create.
This explains Emerson's critical, Nietzschean views on philanthropy. It is the “foolish philanthropist” who considers the poor. We must have “the manhood to withhold” support for public institutions and charities. The authentic great man stands beyond and above “your miscellaneous popular charities,” “the education at college of fools,” and “alms to sots.” In perhaps his most candid formulation, Emerson lambasts charity and romanticizes hate: “Never varnish your hard uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folks a thousand miles off… The doctrine of hatred must be preached.” He presents the distant poor as a distraction from the project of self-realization. Particularly striking is his presumption that “hard uncharitable ambition” constitutes the true self, and that yielding to public-spirited charitable enterprises is thus a departure from individual integrity.
In the absence of facts, history, and communal consensus, power is left as the only diagnosis of true authenticity. As Emerson writes, “Power is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself.” This is directly echoed in Trump’s obsession with power. “We love winners. We love winners. Winners are winners.” This ideal, in Emerson, leads to the idolization of tyrants. Writing on the Roman dictator Caesar, Emerson claims, “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age… posterity seems to follow his steps as a train of clients.”
This is the ultimate threat Donald Trump embodies. Like the tyrants Emerson celebrates, Trump exemplifies the original meaning of the word authentic, “a self-doer,” one so willing to advance individual interest at the expense of the collective that they even justify murder. A man who, as Trump himself stated, could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.”
While it is tempting to dismiss Trump and his supporters as foolish, uneducated, and even “deplorable,” it is much more difficult to find what lies at the heart of his appeal to authenticity. In order to understand the circumstances that have produced Donald Trump, we must recognize that authenticity is a sacred American value. We seek it in friends, lovers, music, food, political candidates, novels, and neighborhoods. We find it in the world and the self: street tacos in Los Angeles, intimate journal entries, blues bands in New Orleans, country music in West Texas, meditation retreats in San Francisco. The authentic transcends mere truth and brushes against something deeper, something spiritual. Authenticity offers the beautiful promise that inside each of us is a true self that can be realized under the right circumstances. It’s the closest we get to a shared national religion.
The appeal to authenticity even unites our fractured political divide. Supporters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump share a common faith in each man’s authenticity. On the left Nancy Pelosi defended Joe Biden’s support of segregationist senators in 1970s, saying, “I think that authenticity is the most important characteristic that candidates have to convey to the American people, and Joe Biden is authentic.” At the heart of this American ideal lies Emerson’s belief in the “I” writ large.
Those who really want to oppose Trump must refuse the appeal to authenticity. Instead of an indifference to facts and consistency, we must prioritize knowledge and informed action in our political life. Instead of a hostility to history, we must strengthen our command of its materials. Instead of a politics of self-expression, we must accept the necessity and struggle of democratic life. We must abandon the myths of great individuals and forge communal values based on reason and fact.
Perhaps there is no better example of the antithesis of Donald Trump than the 20th-century American author Ralph Ellison. Ellison, who was named Ralph in honor of Emerson, was intimately aware of the dangers inherent in the myth of Emersonian authenticity. While Ellison recognized Emerson’s great power as a writer, he also critiqued the dangers of an Emersonian worldview. “Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We’ve fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we’ve arrived at any given moment in our national experience.” Ellison reminds us that we must struggle with the history of our ideas and the troublesome details of the national memory that the tides of Trumpism constantly threaten to overthrow.